Before there was Senator John McCain, there was Senator William Proxmire. Like McCain, he often stood apart from his party, favored campaign finance reform… and was a media darling. Proxmire died on Thursday at the age of 90. Brooke reminisces about the Wisconsin Senator's long career of media stunts, born of equal parts tenacity and conviction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Before there was a Senator John McCain, there was Senator William Proxmire, a maverick Democrat from Wisconsin who died Thursday in Maryland. He was 90 years old. Elected in 1957 to fill the term vacated by the death of Senator Joseph McCarthy, he served for 32 years. Like McCain, Proxmire was a man who often stood apart from his party. Like McCain, he was a fierce advocate of campaign finance reform, and, like McCain, he was a media darling. But unlike McCain, Proxmire attracted his headlines with stunts, crafted with equal parts showmanship and conviction. Take his filibusters. One of them, against raising the ceiling of the national debt, lasted more than 16 hours. But it was his annual Golden Fleece Awards, conceived to ridicule government waste, that kept him in the news. There was the one bestowed for the government-funded study to learn if drunken fish are more aggressive than sober ones, the one for the million-dollar grant to preserve a sewer as a historical monument, the one for the two hundred thousand dollar program devoted to media literacy, or, as he put it, "to teach college students to watch television." Wait a minute. I like that one. And that was the problem with Proxmire. The Milwaukee Journal observed, when he retired, that "Proxmire was a vigilant guardian of the public purse, but his love of publicity sometimes led him to take cheap shots as well, artfully ridiculing programs that actually deserved support." Still, there was no doubting his tenacity. In 1967, he vowed to give a speech every day until a convention against genocide was ratified in the Senate. Nineteen years and 3,211 speeches later, it was. "What a wacky guy," as genocide expert Samantha Power once called him. And what a gift to reporters, who never had to guess where he stood. He told them over and over again, and usually they put it in the paper. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the year's top new words from the New Oxford American Dictionary, and getting the boomer monkey off our culture's back.